THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Raise Test Scores or Die

Back in 1986, in a column titled "Internal Combustion Prose," New York Times columnist Russell Baker noted the defeat of a proposal to emblazon Wisconsin license plates with the slogan "Eat Cheese or Die." It looks like Arne Duncan has taken up where the folks in Wisconsin left off, traveling the country shouting, "Raise Test Scores or Die." He calls it Race to the Top. And with his threats about merit pay based on student test scores, he comes perilously close to admitting that every teacher whose students fail to perform will find her name on a tombstone.

Whether it's Secretary of Education William Bennett declaring that middle-schoolers should read The Scarlet Pimpernel, Ivanhoe, and The Virginian or secretary Arne Duncan demanding that districts align toddler skills, teachers know that when a Secretary of Education speaks, they'd better run for cover--while their professional organizations hustle for a seat at the corporate-politico table.

Duncan is promising to divide $5 billion among states that submit the competitive grants that best align with his corporate training model. These monies will range to a one-time grant of $40 to $200 per student, according to how well states toe the line. To put the paltry amount that persuades states to jump through hoops into some context, consider that the nation spends $800 billion annually on national security.

Only 12 to 15 states will be given grants in the first round of this Race to the Top scheme, and the Gates Foundation has joined the frenzy, offering up to $250,000 in grant money to help states that meet the Gates guidelines to hire consultants to help them tailor their grants to qualify for the federal Race to the Top money. Get that? Gates is pre-identifying winners for Race to the Top funds.

In short, this is a race to make sure that students are measured constantly on their reading skill acquisition, turning acts of literacy into commodities that can be measured for worker effectiveness in a global economy. I live in Vermont, a state so out of compliance with this hustle that Gates has informed us we don't qualify for its help in getting Race to the Top money and so our politicos have withdrawn from Round 1 to lick their wounds and gear up for Round 2. I figure the Gates rejection means we must be doing something right.

Democrats in Congress are rushing to jump on the skills alignment bandwagon. Washington Senator Patty Murray introduced the LEARN Act and Minnesota Senator Al Franken co-signed it. NCTE rushed to be part of the enterprise, sending an Action Alert to its members: "Ask Your Senator to Cosponsor S. 2740, the LEARN Act."

In her Washington Post column The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss noted that although Glenn Beck was the November 2009 recipient of the annual NCTE Doublespeak Award, Professor Stephen Krashen and I thought the award for using language that is "deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing and self-centered" should have gone to NCTE itself for supporting and promoting the LEARN Act. We are enraged by NCTE's complicity because a professional organization has the obligation to warn the public that excessive testing dooms children into a curriculum of test prep, and it amounts to claiming you have raised the temperature of the room when all you have done is put a match under the thermometer.

Among its many faults, the LEARN Act, supported by the Obama administration, appears to require assessment of newborn children to see if they are "developing appropriate early language and literacy skills."

SEC. 9. SUBGRANTS TO ELIGIBLE ENTITIES IN SUPPORT OF BIRTH THROUGH KINDERGARTEN ENTRY LITERACY.

(C) SCREENING ASSESSMENTS AND MEASURES--Acquiring, providing training for, and implementing screening assessments or other appropriate measures to determine whether children from birth through kindergarten entry are developing appropriate early language and literacy skills.

In Finland, where children score at the top of international tests in reading, schools don't start teaching literacy skills until children are seven years old.

What NCTE should do right now is tell Arne Duncan, Senators Murray and Franken, and the members of the House Committee on Education and Labor and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions--the folks who got us into the NCLB mess--that a teacher gains more insight into a child's thinking from a dinosaur riddle book than from 10,000 standardized test printouts. But I remember what happened in the late 1980s when the Business Roundtable joined hands with governors to pursue a school excellence agenda. Instead of pointing out that those emperors of excellence were naked, NCTE started selling "excellence" sweatshirts. I wait with morbid fascination for the appearance of the "Raise Test Scores or Die" slogan on their next batch of T-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers.

I want my T-shirts to read:

• Let Kindergartners Play

• Riddle Books Reveal Skill Mastery

• Amelia Bedelia is a Rite of Passage

• Exempt 3rd Graders from the Global Economy

• Protect 5th Graders from Excessive Homework

• Let Bill Gates Fix Windows and Leave Schools Alone